"Hey, Jay," Moses whispers urgently, like he's just thought of something, and Moses trying to think never ends well but Jay has to roll over anyway and ask,
"Solon," comes the answering rasp, and Jay is suddenly tense, alert. "When he came back, he didn't—did he—"
Oh, of course that would be what he asks. "Don't ask questions you don't want to hear the answers to, bandit," he snaps. He sounds calm, he thinks. He hopes.
"Jay," Moses whispers into the dark, again, and his voice wavers.
"It's none of your business anyway," Jay says, and thanks whatever deities are out there that Moses, for once, doesn't argue.
Solon beats him until his legs give out, until the only thing holding him up is the two fistfuls Solon has of his shirt, and then he throws Jay into the ground with such force that Jay nearly breaks his arm trying to cushion the fall.
Damn you, he says, panting, as Solon smirks down at him. Part of him is shouting run, and the other part is shouting get up and fight, and somehow that adds up to him laying there, frozen, as Solon bears down on him and tilts Jay's head to whisper in his ear.
This is what Solon tells him: you are going to turn your back on the only people you ever called friends; you are going to betray a girl you like, a girl you could have loved; you are going to send her to a slow, cruel, humiliating death and watch as the light in her eyes fades day by day; you are going to walk away from your entire life, everything you've built up around yourself for the past six years, everything you've just started to think could really be yours.
It was never yours, he says, and Solon is crawling over him, trapping him against the ground. The sun is high in the sky and beating down bright on his face, and the air is still and his mouth tastes like dust. Don't, he says, turning his head to the side, and Solon laughs.
Oh, dear Jay, he says. Did I give you the impression you got to decide?
He told himself, when he first realized who might have sent the ninja, he told himself he wouldn't give in and he wouldn't beg, and of course he ends up doing both.
(Some things, Jay thinks—some things you are better off not saying.)
—I'm the man, Moses pouted once, I'm the one who's s'posed to be paying, right?
You are a moron, Jay informed him, handing the waiter the check without missing a beat, and I could explain to you all the reasons why, but we'd be here all night.
It was at the very beginning of their relationship. Not much has changed since then.
By the time he gets back from the day's business—an absolutely insipid upper-class function that was nevertheless quite enlightening—it's nearly midnight. He nods to the half-awake concierge as he steps into the lobby; his semi-permanent home in Werites Beacon is a room as far away from Norma's as he could get, on the first floor of the hotel. He turns the knob experimentally. It's open, which he was (all right, fine) half-hoping for, but not really expecting.
Moses is sprawled over the bed like it's his, feet propped up on the seat of the only chair in the room. He looks up at the click of the door and grins. "Hey, boyfriend," he says, a provocation.
Jay doesn't bother hiding the curl of his lip. "I despise that word. And put your feet down."
Jay was Moses' friend, and Jay is Moses' boyfriend, but never the other way around, at least as far as Jay is concerned. They are involved (this accompanied by a sideways glance and a slight scowl)—but Jay really does hate that word. Moses, of course, revels in it. It's one of their old arguments: they bicker about it in that Jay-and-Moses way that everyone around them has learned to tune out by now.
Which doesn't mean that either of them is joking. This happens to be one of their arguments that is always skirting the edge of serious, and Jay wonders when they're going to actually fight about it.
Not today. Moses rolls his eyes, but he sits up, putting his feet back on the floor. "You're one cold bastard," he says. "What, you ain't even gonna say hello to your boyfriend?"
"You seem to think—that title gives you the right to treat this room as badly as you treat your own hovel. It doesn't." But he doesn't press the issue any further. "It's a little late for you to still be up, isn't it?"
Moses snorts. "Waiting for you. Hell, is that a crime?" It's not confrontational, not precisely, but it could be.
Jay knows what he wants. Moses wants him to say no, I was hoping you'd come or I missed you or something equally sentimental and impossible. He always seems to be waiting to hear that. He'll be waiting a long time.
That's another argument. Not all arguments are conducted aloud—and if Moses didn't know that at the beginning of their relationship, well, they are both quickly learning.
Jay moves to the vanity, making a show of dusting off the seat, and begins to take off his makeup. Moses watches him closely, the whole time, which probably shouldn't make him as uncomfortable as it does. "How are your bandits?" he asks. "You haven't reduced yourselves to eating dirt yet, I hope?"
In the mirror and out of the corner of his eye he watches Moses bristle.
"Now hang on—"
Jay smiles and places a finger to his lips, which only serves to make Moses madder. But this is the kind of anger he can deal with; he's played and replayed this line of attack so often it's like an old friend. It predates their relationship, and it predates their friendship. It is utterly uncomplicated.
But it doesn't banish the omnipresent prickle at the back of his skull: this isn't going to work. You know this has to end.
They bicker constantly—Jay can't remember them going more than thirty seconds without a snide comment about Jay's height or Moses' lack of shirt, unless the situation is really dire—but they fight at least twice a month, and Jay never knows, when Moses falls into step beside him at the end of the lane, when the one is going to become the other. They're all variations on the same theme, too: Moses thinks Jay doesn't respect him (he doesn't and he does) or Moses is sulking about not being allowed to demonstrate his nonexistent machismo or Moses is upset because Jay never tells him anythin', which is sometimes legitimate and sometimes a crazed insistence that Moses have every minute of Jay's history played back for him when it is really none of his business.
Jay is the one who has been in a relationship, but Moses is the one who seems to know what a relationship should be like, exactly and in detail. Jay has never met anyone so sure about how things should be in his life. Jay is sure of nothing, except that Moses doesn't really want to hear the answers to the things he asks.
You and Sandor? Chloe says.
I wouldn't have expected it of you, Will says.
I guess I don't really get it, Senel says.
He knows what they are really asking. The answer is: they are together because one day Shirley turned to him and said you love him, don't you, and with a rush down his spine he realized it was true; they are together because when things go right, when they actually get along, Jay feels alive and awake and absolutely crazy, exhilarated and terrified at the same time. (The terror, he knows by now, is part and parcel of being in a relationship, and it bothers him a lot but it isn't a problem.)
It doesn't have to make sense, Moses says. Love don't listen to logic.
I think most people would call that insanity, Jay replies acidly. The slight droop of Moses' frame, the frown twisting across his face—that should be Jay's reward, but it just makes his stomach plunge towards his toes.
It's not enough; none of it is enough. Jay only admits it to himself in the darkest hours of the night, but the course they are on is unsustainable. One day—and he doesn't know how far off that day is but it will come—one day they're going to fight again, and the tottering half-overtures they make towards one another won't hold them together anymore. There's a chasm there that neither of them has been able to bridge.
He could have not baited Moses; he could have said something vaguely affirmative, an Apparently not or Perhaps, and gone back to his book; he could have just smiled like he had some secret he wasn't ready to give up; he could have said nothing at all, even. It would have been easy. It would have been impossible.
There have been few times in his life when Jay has wanted so badly to get things right, and now he is finding that everything he knows, all his promises and plans, are pathetically, laughably unequal to the task.
It's a spring morning when Shirley borrows Jay's arm and ear—or maybe that's the other way around, it's hard to tell with them—and they walk in the shadow of a sudden shower in a manner that an outsider might take as inappropriate, but it's just the way they are. Moses likes to complain about it; he's convinced that Jay tells Shirley all the things Jay won't tell him. Jay would call him paranoid, except that he's right.
You don't trust him, Shirley says.
Don't be ridiculous, Jay says, of course I do. He's fought back-to-back with Moses, slept in the same bed as him, entrusted to him a hundred secrets that could destroy Jay. He would kill or die for Moses.
She's always seen through him, though; she just gives him one of her long looks and says, do you really?
He thinks of the way he used to tell her everything—still tells her everything—because he can't not, thinks of the thousand nameless fears that have settled around him like a veil of black mist. The realization hits him all at once, and for once he does feel like he has ice water running through his veins.
Shirley is two paces in front of him and to the side. They are standing still now, he realizes; he must have stopped walking at some point. She gives him a half-smile, a little sad.
His throat is closing on itself. I can't do this—Shirley, I can't.
Are you just going to give up, then? she asks, sharply.
All around them, people are milling about, ordinary people absorbed in their own ordinary problems. They pay no mind to Shirley or to Jay; the two of them exist in their own parallel universe.
"Sometimes you have to fight for the things you want," Shirley says. "You remember that, don't you?"
Solon's breath steams against the back of his neck; Solon's arms curl around his sides; Solon's hands stroke his stomach, up and down in slow circles. Jay the Unseen, he drawls, too close to Jay's ear. You've been busy these past few years, haven't you? But playtime is over. It's time to come home.
I hate you, Jay says, tonelessly. No part of him moves, except his mouth. He might as well be a doll. A figurine, a collectible.
Come home with me, Solon says. It isn't a suggestion. It isn't an offer, either.
His eyes snap open. He is greeted by darkness and the steady, even sound of Moses' breathing. (He doesn't snore, but Jay has half-convinced him that he does. It's another of those things that isn't very good of him.)
The room is far too cold at this time of year, Jay thinks, and the fact that Moses mummifies himself in the blankets every night doesn't help. At any rate, he's not getting back to sleep for a while yet. He might as well sneak downstairs and work on the plans for the new defense system—
A snort and a snuffle startles him, but of course it's only Moses rolling over in his sleep. Jay slips silently out of his room and skates down the stairs to the disheveled technically-a-lounge that Moses likes to call your office; the hour is such that it takes him nearly a minute to find the right papers. (It is only the hour, and has nothing to do with the voice in his head whispering are you finished playing at love yet, Jay?)
He could blame it on the voice, or the hour, or his inconvenient tendency to become too absorbed in an interesting problem, but there is really no excuse for the fact that Jay doesn't notice Moses come into the room until Moses clears his throat. "You ever stop working?" he says.
At least he doesn't try to tap Jay on the shoulder—then again, even Moses isn't stupid enough to forget the bruising he got the last time he did that. (It doesn't bother Jay, it doesn't bother Jay, it doesn't bother Jay and if he tells himself that long enough he'll have worn himself down into believing it.) "I remembered something I had to add to this, and I didn't want to forget." He keeps his eyes on the paper. It's a bad lie, and there's no excuse for that either.
"Couldn't sleep?" There's a softness to his voice that makes Jay bristle.
"I was having a nightmare," he says. "You were in bed with me, and getting your drool all over my face. Then I realized it wasn't a dream."
He expects anger—is hoping for it, maybe. Moses just sighs. "Hell, Jay, don't play that with me right now."
Jay turns around; Moses looks totally exhausted—defeated might be a better word. But he's staring at Jay so intensely that Jay is tempted to flee the room; his fingers tighten on the arm of the chair, involuntarily.
"Tell me what's on your mind," Moses says, and forming words should not be this hard. Jay feels like he hasn't tried to speak in years; he half-remembers how to unhinge his jaw, make sound come out, but his tongue is useless and heavy.
"I'm different from you," he says, with a small smile.
"Figured that out a while back." Moses comes and leans against the edge of the desk, jarring the piles of paper. Jay twitches, but refrains from commenting on it. "That why you keep all these secrets?" Moses says. "Because you think I'm too dumb to understand you?"
"I don't keep secrets," Jay snaps, which is not what he meant to say at all. "I don't know what else you think I could possibly be hiding. You could write a history on my life, if you weren't barely literate."
For the second time that night Moses doesn't take the bait; he doesn't even acknowledge that it was set out. "Yeah, I guess I could." His voice is tight with anger. "Just facts, though. Not you. You never let me inside your head."
He feels sick, winded. "You don't want to know what's inside my head."
Moses' expression—cocked head, clenched jaw—is vicious. "Yeah, I do," snarls Moses. He raises his voice. "Starting with what the hell—"
Jay looks right up into his glare, a demonstration that he isn't afraid or threatened by Moses, whatever mask he wears. He doesn't feel unafraid, though. He feels small. "You'll wake the Oresoren," he says.
He thinks Moses might scream; he doesn't, in the end, but his jaw twitches like he wants to. "Starting with what the hell makes you think you know better than me what I want," he finishes, half as loud but just as forcefully.
It's far too still, this room. Jay closes his eyes, blocks it out.
"It's pretty obvious. I—watch you. I look at you." His voice sounds flat, inhuman. "You don't want to know what's in my head. You don't even want to know half the things you already know about me. Every time I start to tell you something, you get this look on your face like you're going to throw up. It bothers you—my life, my past. What would be the point of telling you about it? What purpose would it serve? You don't actually need a dissertation on my nightmares or my history of gruesome murders.
"There's no point," he says.
He opens his eyes. Moses' lip is curling as he stares down at Jay; he doesn't look impressed. "You are one—messed-up little punk, you know that?" His voice is tight, strained. "I care about you. I don't like to see you hurt. So yeah, it bothers me. I ain't made of stone."
"So don't ask," Jay says flatly.
"I'm your boyfriend." Moses spits out the word. It's a confrontation, it's a challenge, it's a dare. "Do you really think bein' with someone is supposed to be like this? You sleep together for six months an' at the end you still don't know a thing of what's in their head?"
Jay raises his chin. "It isn't what you think a relationship should be," he replies, equally bitter. "It isn't what you want. What you want is—" someone who never flinches when you try to touch them—"flattery and ostentatious displays of affection and talking about feelings. You want someone to let you kiss away all their hurts. To whisper—whisper adoring things in your ear. I'm not that person."
"Yeah," says Moses. "You were never much of the adoring type."
He turns his head away from Jay in a motion that seems deliberate; his gaze could burn holes in the door. "Good at twisting words around, though." There's a snarl to his voice. "Maybe I wanted you to act like you wanted t'be around me once in a while. Maybe I didn't want you to lock yourself up and throw away the goddamn key. That a crime now?"
"No," and the silence that follows that single syllable seems to last an age. The lamp casts flickering shadows on the desk and on Jay's hands, and he watches the diagrams on the schematics start to blur like someone whose own body does not belong to him until, finally, there is no more waiting and he has to open his mouth and say what they both know.
"I can't be what you want me to be."
Jay doesn't look at Moses; he doesn't need to, anyway. The tone and cadence of his words are transparent enough. "That all you have to say?"
His hands close into fists. "What else is there?"
"Jay—" Yes, that is Moses' voice cracking like he's just figured out where this conversation is headed. He reaches out blindly for Jay's shoulder, his face, and Jay twitches—but Moses seems to catch himself then, pulling his hand back abruptly. His expression closes off.
Jay knew—he knew it would have to end someday, but he'd never actually thought that someday might mean today.
"I told you I was different from you," Jay whispers. "I don't think you understand what that means."
The lines of his face harden. "When did I ever say I wanted you to be like me?" Moses bites out. "All I wanted was you—"
"Don't lie. You never actually managed to acknowledge what I—what kind of person I was."
Moses has a problem with people; he thinks they're all good and simple and steadfast like he is and refuses to believe otherwise. Jay had known this from the beginning. He'd thought maybe things would work out despite that, somehow. It had been uncharacteristically naive of him.
That seems to get Moses' attention. His head snaps up. "Like hell I don't know you," he grinds out. "You're Jay."
"As a matter of fact, I am. Your eloquence astounds me."
"That ain't what I meant, and you know it," Moses says. "You like playin' dumb to piss people off. Hell, you just like pissin' people off. You never had a nice thing to say about me in your whole damn life. But there ain't a lot you wouldn't do for the people who mean something to you, and I know half of what you say is just to rile me up. You can't stand not bein' the one in charge. You don't like it when I call you short." The slightest hint of a black-humor smile. "You've got too much damn pride for someone so tiny."
Jay doesn't smile back. "And I could kill you twelve different ways before you had the chance to blink. You forgot about that part."
He doesn't miss the flinch. "You wouldn't, though," Moses says quietly.
"You're missing the point." He hates this feeling, this black ugly feeling bubbling up inside of him—he shouldn't say anything, he should keep his mouth shut, but he's so tired and Moses doesn't understand—
"Do you know how many people I killed before I turned ten?" he says. The words don't feel like they come from him.
He gives Moses his most cruel smile. "When I was ten, I couldn't count that high."
Moses breathes out. "Jay," he starts again, warningly, jaw working angry lines—
"Are you going to accuse me of playing games again, bandit?" He should stop. He can't stop it, this derision rolling off him in waves. It's the way he always is with Moses, except that he's never gone this far before—he's never gone too far before—but what is he going to do?
Jay doesn't apologize, not to Moses. And especially not for the truth. "Not this time. I'm only telling you what you refuse to accept. I killed a hundred people—innocents, civilians, children—and I didn't feel a thing. Apparently—" he laughs in Moses' wide-eyed face—"apparently that isn't normal. Normal human beings should be revolted at the thought of stabbing someone in the gut. At least that's what I hear. I wouldn't know."
Moses looks as stricken as Jay has ever seen him, knuckles clenched to white against the edge of the desk, but he doesn't take his eyes off Jay. He tilts his head to the side. "You were just a kid, though," he says, surprisingly soft.
"I was," Jay agrees. "When you were—swimming about in the mud or whatever you did as a child, I was learning how to torture people. I was a quick study, you know."
"You ain't gonna convince me—"
"But you don't just get good at these things overnight. Not even me." He doesn't raise his voice, but he lets it carry. "You have to practice. I practiced very diligently."
He's still smiling. He thinks his face might actually be stuck that way. "He was about your age, probably. I didn't know him—my master brought him back for me. It took him almost a week to die—we started with the fingers—"
"All right!" Jay risks a glance: Moses isn't looking at him, is looking at the floor. His face is sickly-pale. "I get it, all right? I get it. You don't have to tell me everything."
"I suppose not," Jay breathes. "I just wanted you to understand me."
He's good at twisting the knife, after all.
Moses does look up at him, then, and Jay turns away quickly. He's silent for a long time; Jay wonders what Moses is searching for in his shadowed profile and evidently not finding. "Yeah, all right." He spits the words out like he's not quite sure how they go together anymore. "I get it. I see you."
The silence is every prickle on the back of his neck; it's the brace-for-a-blow he never quite managed to break himself of. He can't stand it. "Just—just go. Please," he adds, and chokes as the word goes down. He feels rooted, trapped, suspended, like a puppet held by strings, and he's not even sure time is passing until he hears Moses get up.
Strength, according to Shirley, means not turning away means willing his head to turn—
—and Moses is standing over him, arms clutching the chair back on either side of Jay's head, expression absolutely gobsmacked. "That's it?" he says. "That's what you're tellin' me all this shit for?"
That—doesn't make sense in context, not at all, but before Jay can begin to process Moses is talking again. "You are one ornery little bastard. How many times are we gonna have to do this before you get it through your thick head that I ain't leavin'?"
"What?" Jay hears himself say. He doesn't—he can't—
"You know," Moses says softly, tenderly, "you could maybe try lookin' at me when I talk to you."
Slowly, Jay raises his eyes, not quite feeling like his body is his own, and Moses' gaze holds his there.
"I'm in love with a man," and Moses' voice, again, is barely above a whisper, but it doesn't break. "One man. He can be cold-blooded when he wants to be—he's damn cold-blooded when he wants to be. He'd rather show you the door than watch you walk away yourself." He swallows. "He's done things that'd leave most men screaming—he's been hurt in ways most men couldn't dream of."
"Moses," Jay says, a warning or plea or—does he even know anymore? He can't look away.
"No one could ever cut me like he does," Moses continues. "An' in my whole life I never met a man who was anything like him." His expression is like a plea itself; his eyes will Jay to understand. "So. Still think I don't know you?"
It's that brilliant winning stroke, checkmate with a flourish and a smirk, that he never would have thought could come from Moses. His chest hurts. "You're stupid," he manages, "stupid and simple and naive—" And he stands, and is surprised his legs will hold him, and he has to turn away because his vision is blurring; he falls forward or Moses steps forward or both at the same time—and he is not doing this, he is not going to stand here and cry and be held like a child.
Or not like a child: when he was a child no one ever held him as an end in itself.
"Hey," Moses says. "Jay. Talk to me."
"I don't understand you," Jay tells him, staring determinedly ahead, even though most of ahead is Moses' shoulder. He is supposed to know things. He is supposed to understand people, if nothing else.
"Yeah, well." Moses' head is bent down, his lips almost against Jay's ear. "I can't make heads or tails of you either, half the time, so I guess that makes us even."
The thing is?
Jay knows how to fight. Jay is good at fighting; he does it precisely and gracefully and easily, like it is breathing. What Jay has never been good at is giving in.
He closes his eyes and lets his head drop down onto Moses' chest. Right now he doesn't trust his voice.
Moses tightens his grip. "You really don't have to tell me everything," he says, sounding young. "This is nice, though."
He knows what Moses wants to hear to that, and he doesn't say it, but he does slide his arms around Moses' neck—which is, make no mistake, a concession.
"You know," and it's almost sly, "I think before we got on this track you were sayin' something about breaking up with me. Want to finish that thought?"
He feels insane, like someone's just shot adrenaline into his veins—which doesn't mean that he has any intention of pulling away any time soon. He doesn't. "Bandit," he says, dripping venom. "If you say anything else stupid I might be forced to slit my wrists out of sheer frustration."
Moses laughs like it's the funniest thing he's ever heard in his life.
A glance at the clock tells him it's well into morning, which irks him, because it means he's slept in. Enough that it might not actually be worth going to Werites Beacon today, at least not on business, but he rolls out of bed anyway and reaches for his shirt on the back of the chair. In the mirror, his reflection stares back at him, the dark circles under his eyes prominent like bruises.
The house is quiet: the Oresoren probably left hours ago, and Moses is still sound asleep on the other side of the bed, mouthing their comforter. Jay wonders, not for the first time, what Moses is dreaming, if indeed he dreams at all.
He plays with his shirt. He's not seriously going to stand here and watch Moses (sleep) drool, is he?
Maybe he is.
He remembers a morning a little like this, not too long ago. He was sixteen and tired and shell-shocked and he stood there silently for a long time, trying to hold a thought his mind could only skitter across the surface of: not the closed-off thought that there would be no more days, but the infinitely more terrifying one that there might be hundreds, thousands of days just like this one. He couldn't do it. He threw open the windows and began to run; he didn't stop until he knew no one would be around to see him collapse.
This time he kneels down onto the bed, discarding the shirt as an unnecessary impediment, and bends to Moses' ear. "Wake up, you idiot," he murmurs.
Moses jerks, but shows no signs of consciousness. Jay takes his face in both hands, being careful to avoid the drool, and turns it up towards him. "You," he says sweetly, lovingly, "are a mangy, slobbering, disease-carrying mongrel with all the intelligence of a drowned rat, and you could do a great service to the world by just giving up and falling on your spear."
"Wha—?" Moses' eyes drift open; he looks up blearily, clearly still sleep-fogged.
Jay smiles and repeats himself.
He can see the exact moment when what he's saying actually begins to register: Moses is suddenly wide awake, and in one nearly seamless—and fast, for Moses—move he twists around and lunges at Jay. Of course, Jay is faster, and before Moses can get there, he hops backwards, just out of Moses' reach.
Moses is braced on his elbows on the edge of the bed. His mouth works open and closed. "You—bastard—never had a kind word to say about me in your life, did you—" He's half-laughing, though, not really angry, and when he looks up at Jay through the hair in his face Jay feels a rush of—well, he doesn't really have to name it, does he?
"Good morning to you too," he says.